Alex Colville

The woman in the shadows

There are few known facts about Anne Hathaway. But her afterlife in fiction – as ghost-writer of the plays and mistress of Christopher Marlowe – is vivid

Despite his having one of the most famous names in the world, we know maddeningly little about William Shakespeare. His private life was lost in the swirling debris of the early modern world. Buildings such as the Globe or New Place (the house he retired to in Stratford) were demolished in the centuries after his death. Not a single letter survives, no first drafts of the plays have surfaced and it is disputed whether his portraits even look like him.

Scholars are forced to find other ways of peering into his soul. Some look to the plays and sonnets, boldly presenting fictional and contradictory poetry as concrete evidence. Others examine the objects he may have owned, but the results are hardly the stuff dreams are made on. Victorian archaeologists at New Place unearthed a rusted key and a broken table knife.

A third option is to try to glimpse him through the people he interacted with. Drawing on old biographies, novels and plays, Katherine West Scheil documents how for more than 200 years Anne Hathaway has been used as a keyhole through which to spy on the playwright as husband and lover. Her review of these varying interpretations demonstrate that Anne has been distorted to fit the Shakespeare each writer or era wanted to see.

Little is known about their marriage: a daughter born six months after their wedding; the bride being eight years older than the groom; an absentee husband; Shakespeare’s last-minute bequest of the second-best bed in his will (for Carol Ann Duffy an intimate in-joke; for Anthony Burgess a final insult hurled from beyond the grave).

Anne has had a rough ride. She was steamrollered in the 18th century (in order to get a better view of Shakespeare’s monument, Georgian pilgrims stood on her grave), but there was an explosion of interest over the next 100 years.

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